By week’s end, Democrats had not only captured the necessary 23-vote margin on Tuesday night to slide into a House Majority, but still were growing their reach into now 30 seats flipped: 225 Democrats versus 198 Republicans. Various forecasters watching the slow process of ballot counts for too-close-to-calls throughout the country, however, seem convinced that could potentially reach as many as 235 seats when it’s all said and done.
“Of the 14 unresolved House races, Democrats lead or look like they’re in good position in 10 of them,” noted FiveThirtyEight analyst Nathaniel Rakich.
Election Night was mixed for both Democrats and Republicans, although the latter still maintains control of most of the federal government. Still, Democrats’ retaking of the lower chamber not only further fractures a government that already has faced significant disruption and dysfunction in recent years, but it presents considerable challenges for the Trump administration.
And while there’s been no talk of impeachment — noticeably limited in reference by Democratic Party campaigns in the weeks leading up to last Tuesday — there is consensus that House Democrats, at the very least, are preparing to force greater partisan equilibrium and a fresh dose of oversight on the administration.
“Republicans still control the Senate, they still control the White House and [conservatives] control the Supreme Court,” Philadelphia-area Congressman Dwight Evans (D-PA) told The Tribune during an interview on WURD. “At this stage, the House is now the only circuit breaker we have against this.”
How effective that “circuit breaker” will be against Senate Republicans, predictably combative House Republicans, and an otherwise unpredictably antagonistic president is uncertain at this point. Democrats must first decide on their leadership team, priorities heading into the 116th Congress and how to stay unified.
The Pelosi problem
Internal grumblings plague the Democratic Caucus. Despite conventional wisdom that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be elected House Speaker later this month, there remains a lingering lack of confidence in that assessment. Pelosi, appeasing demands from a number of Democrats, went so far as to schedule leadership elections after Thanksgiving — a departure from her original date of Nov. 17.
This will give her time to generate support considering the decision must be made with 218 votes from House colleagues — and so far, out of now 225 Democrats, some 21 election-winning members had announced publicly that they are not supporting her, putting the potential vote tally to at least 204. Should Democrats gain additional seats and reach 235, that calculus could change.
Part of the problem is that Pelosi remains an enormously unpopular politician in the public eye. She receives only a 28-percent popularity rating in recent YouGov polling.
The only “no Pelosi” vote from her home state of California is Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), who, on Thursday, bowed out of what’s brewing into a contentious Democratic Caucus Chair race because of recent federal grand jury indictments against her husband.
Two Congressional Black Caucus Members, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who are more than likely supporting Pelosi, are now vying for that position. While Lee has seniority in terms of years spent in the House, multiple sources on and off the Hill tell The Tribune that Jeffries is favored to win. “Jeffries has a strong chance,” says one party insider speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is a big old guard versus new guard split within the CBC over this race, but Jeffries has a lot of support outside of the Caucus.”
Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Connor Lamb (D-PA) had indicated he wasn’t voting for Pelosi. But newly-elected Philly-area Rep. Mary Scanlon, soon to represent South Philly and Delaware County, has been non-committal to date. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA) is supporting Pelosi for Speaker, along with most — if not all — of the Congressional Black Caucus. Only one presumed CBC Member, newly elected Steven Horsford (D-NV) — returning to Congress for the first time since 2015 — has not committed.
The other concern, particularly from much more progressive Democrats, should Pelosi become Speaker: What will her relationship with President Trump look like?
Many observers, party insiders and Democratic House Members were unnerved by Pelosi’s suggestion that she’d be open to negotiating with Trump on a number of key policy issues — even as Trump himself was threatening retaliation against House Democrats. “We look forward to a new kind of era,” said Pelosi during a press conference.
And she virtually took impeachment off the table. “It depends on what happens in the Mueller investigation,” Pelosi told PBS during an Election Night interview. “But that is not unifying and I get criticized in my own party for not being in support of it. But I’m not. If that happens, it would have to be bipartisan, and the evidence would have to be so conclusive.” Even if Democrats had enough votes to impeach Trump in the House, conviction in the Senate, which leads to removal, is impossible given GOP domination of the upper chamber.
Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie still expects greater attention on oversight in a new Democratic House. “They will certainly be more aggressive,” Gillespie notes. “The question will be how aggressive and how the Trump administration will react.”
Activists, like G.S. Potter of the Strategic Institute of Intersectional Policy, suggest that a less adversarial approach from House Democrats will ultimately backfire. “When the Republicans took the House under Obama, they took a no-compromise pledge with the goal of stopping Barack Obama,” says Potter. “It was effective.”
By the end of 2014, Congressional Republicans had not only blocked over 500 bills, but they generated enough anti-Obama opposition to re-take the Senate. “Instead of actually stopping the Trump Administration and standing up for the voters that came out to block the GOP, Democrats can be expected to wage a number of investigations and bipartisan efforts that will fail to stop Trump while allowing the fighting spirit that allowed the Democrats to take back the House to dissipate before the 2020 elections.”
Other Philly-area House Members, like Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), seem to concur somewhat. “The American people put their trust in House Democrats to do three things: bring down health care costs, level the playing field for working people, and end the culture of corruption ushered into Washington by Trump Republicans.”
What will the policy priorities be?
In this kind of political environment, observers admit that a new, divided Congress presents enormous unknowns. What will the policy priorities be?
“A lot of people who are entering Congress for the first time ran on issues, and they need to deliver,” says Heather Foster, Democratic strategist and former Obama administration official. “Whatever strengthens Obamacare passes, and they want to see prescription drug prices go down.”
“The last Congress just wasn’t getting anything done.”
There will be heightened tensions in the House over increased investigations into the White House and a number of Cabinet agencies, including Cabinet secretaries drawing scrutiny. House Democrats, including Pelosi, are promising a fresh look into the firing of now former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and whether the installment of acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is unconstitutional.
Democrats and others are alarmed that Whitaker is now managing oversight of the special counsel’s Russia collusion probe and refuses to recuse himself (as Sessions did, a decision that drew the ire of Trump). “Weeks ago, it was reported that Whitaker was President Trump’s pick to replace Sessions and Rosenstein because he was loyal to the White House,” said Democracy Forward‘s Charisma Troiano. “Whitaker has publicly criticized the Special Counsel’s investigation and detailed various ways he could try to undermine Mueller and effectively shut down the investigation while protecting Trump’s family.”
Post-election exit polling data from CNN show a slim majority of voters (38 percent) cited opposition to Trump as a driver of their decision; 26 percent of midterm voters supported Trump and 33 percent claim he wasn’t a factor — 63 percent of voters had made up their mind more than month before the election. And a majority of voters, 56 percent, were opposed to impeachment.
When asked about the most important issues, 41 percent indicated health care as the top issue, followed by immigration (23 percent), the economy (22 percent) and gun control (10 percent). With more than 4 in every 10 voters picking healthcare as their issue, Democrats feel they have a winning issue to shape legislation on. And, for now, the Affordable Care Act is secure since there is no Republican majority to constantly push for repeal.
“There’s definitely going to be a change of priority on the Hill,” Evans says. “Rather than talking about tax cuts for billionaires, we’re talking about investments in people.”
Evans, like most of his House colleagues, expressed optimism that an ambitious infrastructure package could very well pass through Congress as one of the few policy areas Democrats and Republicans can agree on. “Infrastructure will be key. The state of school buildings in Philadelphia and the lead problem in our water, for example, are especially important to me.”
Infrastructure pops up as a theme among Philly-area House members, a sign that the aging city and region is in desperate need of a upgrade. Boyle also emphasizes “job creation and raised wages by rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure — roads, bridges, schools, and water systems.”
Beyond the so-called “kitchen table” issues, many Black politicos, civil rights activists and CBC Members are calling for an immediate push on voting rights — as soon as the 116th Congress begins. Numerous instances of brazen voter suppression in states like Georgia, Florida, North Dakota and elsewhere have raised calls from the civil rights community to strengthen the Voting Rights Act after its crucial Section 5 “state pre-clearance” provision was gutted in 2013 by the Supreme Court. Critics of that decision point to the rampant voter suppression in the 2018 election as evidence that decision severely damaged voting rights.
“The first order of business for House Democrats is to pass legislation to strengthen voting rights,” says Peter Groff, a former legislator and Obama 2008 co-chair.
CBC Member Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) plans to push her Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) which seeks to revive Section 5. “With the rampant voter suppression across the map this year, I think that election reforms have taken on a new urgency,” Sewell says to the Tribune, confirming that it will be one of the first bills brought to the House floor. “If we want to build a democracy where everyone has a fair voice, Congress must act.”